How long will you forget me, LORD? (Psalm 13) [Sermon 6-18-2017)


June 14, 2017 by jmar198013

Manuscript of my sermon for June 18, 2017. From an ongoing series, “Psalms: Prayers of the Old Testament Saints.”

Text is Psalm 13.

An audio link is embedded below for those who’d like to listen.

“The ref is blind”

Anyone who’s spent much time with me knows I’m a total mark for classic professional wrestling. Yes, I know it’s “fake” …

We fans prefer the term choreographed. These days most of us are smart to the business. We know the outcomes are predetermined. We know backstage politics has more to do with who holds a title belt than who’s a better athlete.

So why do we watch? Why do we care? Because when it’s done correctly, professional wrestling is a morality play. It’s about the eternal battle between good and evil, played out in the theater of the ring. Or as we fans like to call it, the squared circle.

We watch because the action in the squared circle reassures us that there’s still justice in the world. The good guys win and are rewarded. The bad guys lose and are humiliated. Playing by the rules assures a victory.

Except when it doesn’t.

Sometimes you’ll see a fan holding up a sign at a wrestling show that says, The ref is blind! That’s because professional wrestling referees are some of the stupidest and easiest to distract humans on the face of the earth. The bad guys use these gullible referees—who all have tunnel vision and the attention span of a fruit fly—to their advantage. All it takes is a scantily-clad valet, or a loud manager with a megaphone, jumping on the ring apron to point out a loose turnbuckle. Or complain that an obscure State Athletic Commission rule isn’t being followed. The ref turns his back on the action. Then the bad guys can double-team the good guy, or hit him with a folding chair, or some knuckle dusters they’ve hidden in their boot.

And if the ref didn’t see it, it didn’t happen.

What’s up with that? Well, it actually adds another layer of reality to the spectacle. Pro wrestling fans tend to be salt-of-the-earth people. Red-blooded Americans who work hard, play by the rules, pay their taxes. But still so often find themselves getting a raw deal. That’s what the blind referee stands for. The referee in a professional wrestling match stands for all the institutions that are supposed to keep us safe and maintain justice and order. But we know that very often, the system breaks down. Then the big bad bully waylays the hometown hero while the ref’s back is turned. The bully wins and gets away with it, even while the fans shout in protest. It’s so unfair!

And that’s what Psalm 13 is all about. A decent guy keeps getting beat down by his enemies. Not in the squared circle, but in the wrestling match of life. And for whoever wrote this Psalm, the distracted referee was God.

Prayer means answering God

Eugene Peterson is a theologian and biblical scholar who has also given the church a wonderful gift: his vibrant translation of the Bible, called The Message. Peterson says the Psalms are tools that are absolutely necessary for learning to pray. Our habit, he says, is to talk about God, not to him. We love discussing God. But the Psalms … are not provided to teach us about God but to train us in responding to him. We don’t learn the Psalms until we are praying them. [1]

I greatly appreciate what Peterson said there, not just about how the Psalms teach us to pray; but also how prayer is responding to God. Church, that ought to completely reorient how we think about what we’re doing when we pray. When we pray, we aren’t initiating a conversation with God. We are always answering God. We can only speak to God because God has already spoken.

God has spoken—and speaks—through the scriptures. But that’s hardly the only way God speaks. God has spoken—and speaks—through creation. After all, according to Genesis 1, God spoke the universe into being. One of the Psalms even famously says: Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming his handiwork (Ps. 19.1). Declaring. Proclaiming. Those are words about speaking! And Job says: talk to earth, and it will teach you. And what does Job say the creation will teach us? That wisdom and power belong to God; and counsel and understanding are his (Job 12.8, 13).

So God speaks to us through the scriptures; and God speaks to us through the creation all around us. But there’s another way God speaks to us. Heb. 1.2 says: now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God has spoken—and speaks—to us most clearly, most powerfully, most emphatically through Jesus. Not just through Jesus’ teachings—which are absolutely necessary. But through his life. Through his death on the cross. Through his resurrection. Through his elevation to God’s right hand in glory, where he lives to speak for us to God. Jesus is at God’s side right now praying for us.

Only once we understand that prayer always means answering God, can we understand the panic inside the first words of Psalm 13:

How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?

    How long will you hide your face from me?

Because the person who first prayed these words was someone who had lived their life as an intimate conversation with God. Someone who listened to God, and answered with joy, obedience, and thankfulness. But now, when they need him most, God doesn’t answer them. At least—they can’t hear God anymore. And God’s silence is terrifying.

How do you answer God when it seems like God has left the building? That’s what this Psalm, this prayer, is about.

How long?

The first question of this sad, desperate prayer—How long, Lord?—is a question that faithful saints asked time and time again throughout the Bible. And since.

Whenever this question comes up in scripture, it’s raised by people who are suffering injustice. They want to know why God isn’t doing something to make things right.

In Hab. 1.2, the prophet complains to God:

Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen?

        I cry out to you, “Violence!”

            but you don’t deliver us.

And in the very last book of the Bible, there’s a vision of God’s people who had been slaughtered on account of the word of God and the witness they had given.

They cried out with a loud voice, “Holy and true Master, how long will you wait before you pass judgment? How long before you require justice for our blood, which was shed by those who live on earth?” (Rev. 6.9-10)

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King said “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” That’s the burning sentiment behind the prayer that asks: How long?

As we go on reading Psalm 13, we discover that the person who prayed it was being tormented daily by an enemy who kept hurting them. He says he’s at his wits’ end, with agony filling my heart (vv2-3). That’s why he’s asking God: How long will you hide your face from me? … How long will my enemy keep defeating me?

The one who prayed this prayer was asking: God, don’t you see what’s happening? Why are you looking the other way? Why aren’t you doing anything about this?

We have an epidemic of bullying going on in our schools, in our culture at large. And it’s so much worse now with all the social media than it was even when I was growing up. Because now they bully you on camera and post it on YouTube. They stalk you through text messages and troll your Twitter feed. At least when I was young, you could escape the bullies when you went home. I know. I was one of those bullied kids, and the wounds are deep and some never do quite heal.

Too often, when a young person is being bullied, they’re left to wonder: Did anybody see that? (Not anyone who can or will help, usually.) Why’s everyone looking the other way? Why isn’t anyone doing anything?

Many times, even when the bullying is reported, you hear administrators put out official statements about how, Our school has a zero-tolerance policy. We take this very seriously. We’re investigating. All too often, it seems like there’s law for the victims and grace for the offenders. School officials say: We didn’t see anything. Or, I can’t believe this honor student is bullying your child.

In other words, the referee is blind. The one who’s supposed to enforce the rules and restrain wrongdoers seems to be distracted and shamefully slow to act. And for the one who first prayed Psalm 13, that’s God.

God’s answer

So the person who first prayed Psalm 13 was someone who was bullied, harassed, and victimized by a powerful enemy. And they felt powerless to make it stop. But more than that, they were hurt and angry that God—who should know what’s going on, who should be able to stop it—allowed it to keep going on.

So they pray for God to open his eyes. And do something about it.

Look at me!, they cry. Notice me. See me. Look what they’re doing to me!

Answer me, Lord my God! Don’t be silent anymore! Stand up for me! Put whoever’s hurting me in their place. This is quite a tame request, when compared to other Psalms that pray for God to deal with bad guys and bullies. Ps 58.6 prays for God to break their teeth out of their mouths! And the otherwise heartbreakingly beautiful Psalm 137 ends by inviting God to smash the enemies’ children to a pulp. All Psalm 13 asks is for God to see what’s going on; to listen to the cries for help; and to do something—anything!—to stop the abuse.

The Psalmist prays for God to lift them out of the darkness: Restore sight to my eyes!, he says. I love how Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message: I want to look life in the eye. When we suffer, when we feel alone, when we are bullied and tormented and humiliated, we can’t look life in the eye anymore.

For the Psalmist, whatever bullying or abuse they’re suffering is a matter of life or death. Or at least feels that way to them. They insist that unless God does something to put bad guy in his place, I’ll sleep the sleep of death, and my enemy will say, “I won!” We’ve seen a tragic litany of young people who end their lives rather than go on being tormented by bullies. Yes—this kind of prayer really is a matter of life and death.

Psalm 13 is a prayer for anyone who has ever been bullied or abused. Who feels isolated and never quite safe. Psalm 13 not only gives us words to pray when this is where we find ourselves. It also gives us the hope we need to go on living. Because it doesn’t end where it began.

Psalm 13 ends on a note of joy: Yes, I will sing to the Lord because he has been good to me. Because the psalmist prayed to God, and kept waiting in the darkness, praying. That’s what he means in v5, when he says: I have trusted in your faithful love. The psalmist demonstrated his trust in God by continuing to pray anyway. Even when God seemed absent. Or at least silent.

Through Psalm 13, God shows us he is never really absent from our sufferings. Or looking the other way when bullies and bad guys torment us. God will not let these things go on forever. But he says this to us most clearly through his Living Word, his crucified and resurrected Son, Jesus. Jesus died begging to know why his Father had left him to suffer alone. God answered with resurrection. Resurrection is God’s answer to all who suffer. To all creation. The Enemy will not be able to say, I won. Because of resurrection, we can trust God’s faithful love.

Psalm 13: A tool for honest prayers

We heard a few moments ago that the Psalms are tools that teach us to pray. How does Psalm 13 build up our prayers?

First, Psalm 13 shows us prayer is a battlefield. Whoever gave us this prayer had enemies, and those enemies were winning. The Psalmist’s enemies were human, but those who pray must also fight against rulers, authorities, forces of cosmic darkness, and spiritual powers of evil in the heavens (Eph. 6.12). When other people hurt us, it can unleash dark spiritual forces on us. Shame. Despair. Hopelessness. Hatred. Prayer is also where we ask God to fight those enemies. Psalm 13 is the kind of prayer that also applies to non-human, spiritual enemies.

Second, It is good to pray urgently and impatiently when some great evil threatens us. But whenever we pray about dealing with an enemy—as Psalm 13 does—we must remember the words of 2 Pet. 3.9: The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives. If we trust God to be our God, we should also trust him to be God to our enemies. Maybe he’s being patient with them for a reason. We don’t know how long it took for God to turn the psalmist’s panicked cries for help into a song of joy, celebrating God’s rescue. Sometimes faithfulness means waiting impatiently on our patient God.

Finally, the Psalms teach us to bring our enemies to God in prayer. Jesus taught us to love your enemies and pray for those who harass you (Matt. 5.44). But the Psalms show us our prayers for those who deeply hurt us may begin with confessing to God that we hate them, and calling for God’s judgment on them. But whenever we bring our enemies to Father God in prayer, we do this in the name of Jesus his Son. Jesus who died praying for Father God to forgive his enemies as they killed him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German preacher killed by the Nazis, said:

I cannot forgive the enemies of God out of my own resources. Only the crucified Christ can do that, and I through him. [2] 

What was true for Dietrich Bonhoeffer is also true for us. We will never be able to love our enemies until we hand them over to God in prayer, for God to do with them as he sees fit.

But if you should ever need to pray Psalm 13—if an enemy of flesh or spirit is tormenting you; and God seems distant and distracted, never forget: he has spoken and still speaks to us through Jesus. In him, God tells us: I have already gone through hell and back for you. My crucified and risen Son Jesus is my promise to you that nothing—and I mean nothing!—can ever change my love for you, or snatch you out of my arms! I will fight for you, because you are my child!

Like the one who first prayed Psalm 13, because of Jesus, we can trust in God’s faithful love until the day we can rejoice in his salvation forever.

[1] Answering God: The Psalms as tools for prayer (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1989), 2-3; 12.

[2] Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1970), 59.


One thought on “How long will you forget me, LORD? (Psalm 13) [Sermon 6-18-2017)

  1. […] and you question if God is really good. Or if God is even paying attention. We heard one of those a couple of weeks ago. Psalm 13 begins by asking: How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever? How long will you hide your […]

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